A short story about the wonderland that is Berlin, by Maria Kruglyak.
A thick, tickling heat in the abandoned airfield of Tempelhof in South Berlin. It is mid-day, and the thermometer is stuck somewhere between 36 and 40 degrees, the tall grass is bugging of insects, birds screech desperately, people are covered with sweat and the air moving of evaporating heat from the yellowish green July grass. I am sat here to write about Berlin; sat here to write about a city that is far beyond my understanding not only because the three weeks which I have spent hunting its soul down are far too few, but also because something about this city is beyond my apprehension and will remain there even if I would have spent my entire life wandering down its streets. In other words, I am sat here, writing, taking up your time with an expression of my own confusion of a city that does not only seem to not be sharing my confusion of its character, but also to be so violently alive that I hesitate whether or not to dare call it the urban centre of the 2010s’ Europe.
I cannot offer you anything but my confusion, because, being by nature a writer of journals, I am more suited to write on Paris. If I were to tell you about Paris, I would tell you the stories of myself, because the Parisian streets are a mirror of oneself and I believe Julien Green would agree that Paris opens up to you when you have experienced every emotion in it. It is easy to be bored there, because the streets will talk to you, the monuments answer with sighs of equal dullness and the buildings turn grey – yet, it is just as easy to be happy, because everything will bloom and sparkle in front of you then. A city for lonesome wanderings, Paris, like the pond of Virginia Woolf it can not give you more than yourself: and yet, there will always be more, and a bit more, and even more. Berlin is different, Berlin does not care about you, not out of pride, but rather because it is too absorbed in itself, too busy being Berlin. You rarely hear people expressing their love for London, be that for the coldness or satirical nature of the Englishmen or because the city does not give birth to expressions of devotion – Berlin is the exact opposite: every second conversation on the street would be a remark on the city and their, more or less real, love for it. My image of Berlin is a puzzle of reactions of various people (myself included) to the life stories and anecdotes that take place here because, just as any city, Berlin is not more than the totality of the stories of its inhabitants.
It is a city of contradictions, a strange city, where the post-WW2 divide is still visible in spite of the wealth and unity of the German capital during the last 25 years. The eastern, former Soviet, part of Berlin is an industrial mishmash of railroads, sunk bars of all kinds from pure punk to soul, old factories turned into clubs, squat houses and hipster flats. I have yet to find places here where music is bad, and everyone – from the Scottish young girl who made Berlin her home ‘for the music’ 9 months ago, to the 31-year-old German skater boy that has spent his life in the capital – seems to agree. The techno freaks do not even seem to bother to know who the Dj will be, if the bouncers do not have a reputation of declining people: if you know the place, you know the music, because clubs and bars are divided by music genre rather than style, in a good old festival kind of way. This part of the city never sleeps: at 4 a.m. you will see families climbing the stairs up from the overground station at Warschauer Straße, not even homewards bound, and early in the morning, at 7-10 a.m. the club crowd intermingles with builders greeting them good morning: I have s!een it, that is the way it goes here.
The scene is completely different in the West. Charlottenburg, the old French sector, is a nineteenth-century buildings’ story – not bombed in the war for one reason or another – and still living the café life of Hemingway’s Montparnasse. Each street is filled to the brim with just as full cafés, everyone drinking wines and apéritifs (beers sneak in, too, I must admit), the clientele mostly in their forties and onwards, involved in hours-long discussions, often in-between tables and many, more men than women, dining alone, smoking their cigarettes, reading the news, living the life… The service is fashionably slow and everyone has the looks of demi-wealthy, educated types, enjoying life to the fullest with the necessary excess of food and wine, just to end the evening biking home around midnight in a healthy German manner.
It is however not only the middle class that can afford the dining out – a bartender job, weather by contract or in the typical money-in-hand manner, gives you enough to eat out most every day and have a room in a shared flat (even though the house prices have gone sky high in the last five years, the rent growing with a 5-10% per year, forcing many newcomers to move into hostels rather than flats, but the reforms of this spring have changed the matter somewhat). It is therefore not a surprise that this city, full of small hidden-away galleries with masterpieces of Chagall and a history of Bauhaus and fauvism, is alive. If people, almost regardless of their income and enterprise, eat outside, spend whole week-ends on raves from dusk to dawn and have parks to roam in on afternoons, there would inevitably be everything within reach to display one’s vitality if not to create it. The prices, places and possibilities in Berlin are equal to a room of one’s own to a writer: all the crucial ingredients are there for a city to come to life.
Alive or not, it is a funny city, and perhaps not always in the best of ways. Going through Tiergarten you might accidentally see a parade of polizei: hundreds of policemen rolling down the allée that divides the park in two, in all kinds of vehicles, in every uniform imaginable, displaying their power… Even if you don’t, there will be few walks you take when you do not see a police car – or, perhaps, five vans with lights on soundlessly cruising the streets. Even though, the caution free ways of drug dealers that fill every crosspoint in the nighttime seem to tell that the police are harmless enough. Instead you will get fined on the tube for not having a ticket, and a park guard is bound to fine you yet another 20 euros for not having lights on your bicycle. Homelessness, too, does not seem to exist here: forbidden, unwelcome, the only people begging would either be selling newspapers and know all the restaurant owners, or be young bums, bums by free will, in dreads, asking for changing under a tree between Warschauer and Friedrichshain. People might be drinking at all times of the day, but alcoholics are only found in the light of dawn – as the sun creeps higher they migrate to some shacks, but not the anarchistic squat house because there, in the midst of the graffiti, rooms will be kept tidy and MacBooks left unattended in the all-embracing house share of fifty with illegal immigrants in the basement.
The night is still young at 3 a.m. in Berlin, and confidence is rumoured to be the only key you need to get into places however strict the bouncers may be. Dressing down means dressing cool in this town, and as a foundation covered guy points out a dude with shades – dressed all in black, that keeps appearing in the most picturesque places around the dance floor, and that we both have been watching through those black shades of his – says ‘He is Berghain.’ He may be the epitome of what is called the best club in Berlin, and perhaps in Europe, at ipse people smirk at him, something at which he just smiles happily, shoving more ketamine up his nostrils. Suddenly he would appear on a bench over you as you check your phone that has been shoved away with your bag under some benches.
‘Do you have internet?’
He would turn out to be a normal guy, as friendly as everyone else, but with a sense of drama that it is a challenge to copy. Everyone is putting on a show, he seems to say, so why not go all the way with it? He would have come alone, as many do here, and be too high to talk properly but as you leave, he would take your hand, look you straight in the eye and whisper:
We are a generation lost, as any generation that does not go through disaster, we plunge into any ‘sins’ available, do everything everything because what is the point? We get all the kicks we possibly can, and in Berlin the horizons of possibilities are further away, for here you can find the lost generations of the last century: the roaring 20s, the café life, the dramas of the 30s, the acid drums of the hippie culture, the punks of Margaret Thatcher, and everything in-between and after – they are all here, still, comprised into a minimalistic beat of the 21st century that, with cheap booze, tobacco and kicks of all kinds, explode into a dirty erotic dream, just to wake up the next day because the social system is tight enough to pull them all through: the finances in good shape after all the entrepreneurship and technical developments of Germany’s last 50 years for everyone to survive healthily and take their bicycle to work on Monday – work that pays enough to cloth you, feed you, keep you and give you that weekly weekend adventure.
Not only does the social and security system work with brilliancy and the European cultural history of the last century revive here, the tragic side of the century is just as well-preserved.There must have been a genius of a city architect in Berlin during the last few decades, because there is not a memorial to be found in this city that is not psychologically complete after the guidance of Freud. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is an abstract semi-symmetrical story of cement gravestone-like forms that grow in size towards the midst of the memorial and create a forest in which you get lost and terrified, yet it is as linear as the efficiency of the Holocaust itself. After some time, however, you get through the terror, and the forest becomes a space to play and run and jump on the blocks – as if it was a period of our history that we are, supposedly, through with and can leave behind us. It is not a coincidence, the architect’s words being the same; neither is Hitler’s place of death coincidentally turned into a parking lot: probably the only urban space it is impossible to honour in any way at all. The Brandenburg Gate with its statue of Victory (statue of Peace before Napoleon’s eviction of her to Paris, renamed upon her return) faces the French embassy, still, after two world wars, giving Berlin constant victory over its rival state. The memorial for the book burning, at Bebelplatz, where the nazi’s book burnings took place, is nothing more than a room under the square, visible through a window in the ground, with white empty book shelves to fit a complete library of the books from the list of forbidden literature. It is all organised, well thought-through, just as the placing of the graveyard in the most southern part of Neukölln, where few but locals go, that is filled with neat, anonymous graves of those who died in the Second World War fighting for Germany – a generation which Germany did everything to part from, even though our grandparents fought too, on the other side merely because they were not born German.
The long twentieth century is often called the German century, and it is only then that Germany as the country we know it even existed, and the total history of it: from Bismarck and World Wars to the cultural history of jazz and drugs and sexual revolution, still lives on in the city that never sleeps, the city where time has stopped in any musical epoch you would prefer – they are all just a tube-ride away – the city that represents all the generations of the last tumultuous century and that even today comprises the totality of now and the 150 years of the European past. All this is not found in Berlin – it is Berlin.